BUCKHANNON – More than 100 years ago, four Pallottine Missionary Sisters departed Germany on a journey to America. After narrowly avoiding tragedy – they initially booked passage on the Titanic before delaying their trip – the four women eventually found a home in the small Appalachian town of Buckhannon, West Virginia, where they purchased a private residence and converted it into a small, eight-bed hospital.
Thus were the humble beginnings of St. Joseph’s Hospital in 1921.
A century later, the legacy of those founding Sisters endures, with Sister Francesca Lowis determined to carry on the Pallottine Missionary Sisters’ mission of providing quality healthcare in under-served, north-central West Virginia.
Now Vice President of Mission Integration and serving in the hospital’s Pastoral Care office, Sister Francesca says she’ll stay as long as the hospital will have her. Shortly after St. Joseph’s Hospital turned 100 years old officially on March 28, 2021, she opened up about what it’s like to be the sole living Sister stationed at the hospital, the sacrifices other Sisters made throughout the years to keep the hospital’s doors open, and the love she feels for her vocation.
Upon joining the Pallottine Missionary Sisters when she was 19 years old in Germany, Sister Francesca could never have predicted that more than five decades later, she would still be serving a key mission in the United States.
Sister Francesca arrived in the U.S. in 1963 at age 25 and earned her bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Dunbarton College of the Holy Cross in Washington, D.C. She went on to obtain her master’s degree in education from St. Louis University and spent time teaching until beginning her work at St. Joseph’s Hospital in 1995.
The 83-year-old nun is the only remaining Sister in the area – others are stationed in Huntington, West Virginia and Laurel, Maryland – but when she first arrived, that wasn’t the case. Sister Francesca joined three others in her order: Sister Marguerite, Sister Mary Herbert and Sister Roberta. A few years later, Sister Carol came aboard.
“One after the other, they left and died, and I was left by myself by default,” she said.
She now lives with her beloved cat, Silvio, and loves the work she was called to do and will continue to do as long as her health allows.
“God is going to decide,” she says. “If I stay healthy, I’d like to stay as long as they’ll have me. That’s it – that’s the bottom line. I really like it here – not just the hospital, but I like Buckhannon.”
Over the years, many of the Sisters at St. Joseph’s made sacrifices in order to preserve the hospital’s mission and keep its doors open – decisions that were divinely inspired, Sister Francesca believes.
“I think God kept it open,” she says. “The Sisters used to pray a lot that somehow they would make it. There were some very lean times, and not just in the ‘30s and ‘40s, but even in the ‘70s and ‘80s. You couldn’t get doctors to come and stay, that was one big problem. They might come, but they wouldn’t stay.”
Despite setbacks, the Sisters remained resolute in their mission to provide effective, quality healthcare to the people of Upshur County.
“[The Sisters] went without a lot, especially during the hard times,” Sister Francesca said. “They had been here so long that they were really, really personally involved in the hospital because they saw it growing.”
In order ensure the hospital endures well into the future, the Provincial Council of the Pallottine Missionary Sisters made a monumental decision in recent years. With aging Sisters and an ever-declining order, on Oct. 1, 2015, WVU Medicine reached an agreement with the Provincial Council and acquired the hospital, becoming its sponsor.
“That was a big step,” Sister Francesca said. “The Sisters had already been thinking about either cooperating with another big group or selling. When the number of Sisters started dwindling, we had fewer and fewer Sisters who could actually work.”
The decision made sense: WVU Medicine already managed the hospital’s Emergency Department, and there was collaboration in other areas, too.
“We already had a good relationship with them, so we finally decided to do that, and then, there were the negotiations,” she recalls. “We wanted in there that the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services would be continued, which basically means we are a faith-based hospital.”
The hospital’s Catholic heritage remains apparent today. The mission statement says, “We are inspired by the Love of Christ to provide our community with quality healthcare in ways which respect the God-given dignity of each person and the sacredness of human life.”
There are weekly noon worship services on Wednesdays, morning and evening prayers, and a pastoral office which allows the hospital chaplain, the Rev. Barry Moll, and Sister Francesca to talk to people, pray with them and provide spiritual support.
Of all her duties — annual policy reviews, new employee and board member orientations, ethics consults – it is meeting the patients who call on her which Sister Francesca most treasures.
“My very favorite part is to meet people,” she says. “Most are really, really friendly – they act like they’ve known you all their life.”
When she clocks in every morning, Sister Francesca immediately checks the patient roster, and prior to COVID-19-related restrictions, she regularly visited patients.
“I visited patients and prayed with them, listened to them, talked with them – whatever the patient wanted,” Sister Francesca said. “Sometimes, we will have patients who, all they will want to do is say ‘hi’ or just talk about the weather or their football team, and others have very deep spiritual desires or questions – everyone is different.”
She also relishes writing and every day sends out a ‘Thought of the Day’ to St. Joseph Hospital’s 400-plus employees.
“Sometimes, they’re funny – they’re not all religious,” she says with a laugh. “I just do a lot of little things to keep the vision and values of the Sisters alive.”
That includes continuing to integrate the mission, values and philosophy of the Pallottine Sisters into the hospital’s day-to-day operations.
Today, the Sisters’ decision in 2015 benefits not only the hospital’s patients, but also all residents of Upshur, Lewis, Barbour, Randolph and Webster counties through the Pallottine Foundation.
The Pallottine Foundation of Buckhannon is funded by the money the Sisters received from WVU Medicine when it acquired St. Joseph’s Hospital. Accordingly, the Foundation’s vision is “that communities in Buckhannon, West Virginia, and surrounding areas will maintain healthy lives – physically, emotionally and spiritually,” and it charges everyday people with carrying on “the mission and work of Jesus Christ in his healing ministry in the geographic region served by St. Joseph’s Hospital.”
While the Pallottine Sisters’ mission continues through Foundation, Sister Francesca said they are also looking for someone who will perpetuate her vocation of mission integration when she’s gone.
“That is a big question,” she says. “We have looked at several possibilities, and one would be a Sister from another country. We just don’t have any younger ones here. In India and Africa – especially Tanzania – they are growing, but even Brazil and Belize don’t have as many vocations as we thought they would have. We haven’t had any [in the U.S.] for a long, long time.”
Although parts of the future are uncertain, Sister Francesca is unwavering about what she wants for the hospital’s future.
“To stay open and viable and possibly grow,” she says decisively.
After 100 years of trials and triumphs, St. Joseph’s Hospital embarks on its second century as a beacon on the hill overlooking Buckhannon due in no small part to the tireless service of the Pallottine Missionary Sisters.